A rich, white man is accused of raping a younger, African-American woman. His lawyers — one white, two black — not only debate whether or not they should take the case, but confront their own biases and assumptions about race relations in writer/director David Mamet’s engrossing new play, Race, now at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The play takes awhile to heat up, but once it does, it becomes thrillingly explosive.
The action begins as law partners Jack Lawson (James Spader) and Henry Brown (David Alan Grier) are grilling prospective client Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas). While the tenor of the conversation seems unlikely for an initial legal consultation, it serves to quickly introduce the situation and allows Mamet to get in a number of zingers about the tricky terrain of race. While a lot of the dialogue is played for laughs, there’s a serious undercurrent that runs throughout the play and some statements made are far more loaded than initially apparent. This is particularly the case with lines spoken by or to Susan (Kerry Washington), the young, African-American woman recently hired by Jack and Henry’s firm.
Admittedly, much of the first act seems like a string of talking points or jokes about race with very little character development. However, it does lay the groundwork for the terrific second act, in which things get far more personal for the lawyers. A confrontation between Jack and Susan is one of the production’s most powerful scenes, and the rapid fire plot twists that develop as the play comes thundering to its conclusion are nicely handled.
Spader is pitch-perfect as a self-assured man who feels confident enough in his understanding of racial dynamics to be able to make some rather questionable pronouncements in the presence of his African-American co-workers. Washington presents a nuanced performance that relies heavily on the non-verbal, while Grier makes the most of an underwritten role. Both he and Spader demonstrate a firm grasp of the rhythms within Mamet’s own brand of lyrical yet gritty verbiage. Washington is only partially successful in this regard, while Thomas seems overly conscious in his use of pauses.
As with Mamet’s previous works like Oleanna and Speed-the-Plow, the focus is not so much on who is “right” (although audience members are sure to develop opinions on the subject), but on the ways individual characters grapple with larger social issues, and the choices they make which have immediate and possibly far-reaching consequences.